Making ‘worldwide’ be more than geography
A Book of Discipline focusing on the essentials of United Methodism and what connects church members around the world could be in the denomination's future.
Bishop Patrick Streiff leads the Central and Southern Europe Area and chairs the denomination's Standing Committee on Central Conference Affairs. That group is working with the United Methodist Committee on Faith and Order to respond to a mandate from General Conference 2012, which includes determining "which parts of the general Book of Discipline are global and cannot be adapted by the central conferences."
That work is among major efforts to have church statements and practices more reflective of the worldwide nature of the church. Others include consultations on the Social Principles, work around apportionments by the General Council on Finance and Administration and the work of a new Commission on Central Conference Theological Education.
The Central Conferences and Faith and Order committees met twice in 2014. The standing committee will meet in February with the Connectional Table to consider and adopt legislation to be proposed to General Conference 2016. The standing committee will receive feedback on the proposed draft and finalize the proposals in early summer.
Streiff anticpates those to include a constitutional amendment to change the language giving central conferences "adaptation rights" (Para.31.5, "The Constitution," The Book of Discipline). He also expects proposing a process to lay the groundwork for developing a new general (worldwide) Book of Discipline and to change the name of the central conferences to regional conferences – so they no longer carry a name similar to that of the racially segregated Central Jurisdiction in the United States that was abolished in 1968.
As the two committees began reviewing each of the major chapters on "Organization and Administration" of the Discipline, Streiff says, "We realized that up to now the background and paradigm is that the United States has developed a Discipline at the level of General Conference and then the central conferences can adapt to their situation as needed. It gives the idea that the U.S. is the normal situation and model for the church.
"Asking ‘What binds us as a worldwide United Methodist connection, what is essential for our mission?' ... is a different mindset. We do not talk about adaptation. Based on the essentials, a region has the freedom to implement (the Discipline) in its context."
Already labeled as essential, he says, are The Constitution, Doctrinal Standards and Our Theological Task, The Social Principles and The Ministry of All Christians as distinctive parts of the Book of Discipline. But there are also essentials for a worldwide connection in sections on Church Membership and The Ministry of the Ordained.
A challenge will be balancing essentials and avoiding repetition and micromanaging. As an example, Streiff cited the statement on inclusiveness in Article IV of The Constitution. "It is part of the DNA of our church," he said, "but when you look now at the present Book of Discipline, it is repeated over and over in so many places."
An essentials-focused Discipline would be shorter and have a longer shelf life than the volume that General Conference now revises every four years. "If we find it right around the essentials, they should remain for more than four years," he says. "If we need to change every four years, they are not the essentials." That potentially is a money-saver, as, after each General Conference, "the Discipline must be translated in a hundred languages to make it accessible to people in each annual conference."
Globally relevant Social Principles
A process is also underway to update the United Methodist Social Principles to be more succinct, theologically founded and globally relevant .
The General Board of Church and Society has conducted seven consultations in the Philippines, the United States, Democratic Republic of Congo, Mozambique and the Czech Republic. One planned in Nigeria was delayed by the Ebola crisis.
The consultations will lead to a recommendation to the 2016 General Conference to fund public hearings across the connection to develop a proposal to the 2020 General Conference to update the Social Principles. The 2012 General Conference approved establishing a process to assess the Social Principles.
The Rev. Neal Christie, Church and Society's assistant general secretary for education and leadership formation, spearheaded the events.
Apportionments for central conferences
The General Council on Finance and Administration, Streiff said, is working on "proposals as to how we can measure the economic strength of different regions of the world." The proposal is looking in official, comparable data not only on economic factors (Gross Domestic Product), but also on life quality factors such as infant mortality, life span and malnutrition, he said.
Other apportioned funds support work that happens mainly in the United States. "General agencies do some global work outside the U.S. also, and we are very glad," he says noting that similar mission boards and organizations affiliated with and supported by central conferences work in other parts of the world. "We Europeans fund these mission boards ourselves, building up capacity in each region."
Worldwide theological education
Streiff is excited by the work of the Commission on Central Conference Theological Education, chaired by Bishop John Innis of Liberia. It supports leadership development in the central conferences by funding proposals that come through boards of ordained ministry or theological schools.
Representatives from each central conference episcopal area, the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry and the General Board of Global Ministries serve on the commission that will disburse over $5 million this quadrennium. "It is more than just disbursing money," Streiff said, "it is an excellent place to discuss what is going on, what priorities to set and to have the most effective work in the long run."
The Rev. Kathy Noble is editor of Interpreter and Interpreter OnLine, publications of United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tenn.